An unholy row between feminists and organists in the Church of England is brewing after a conference of women bishops issued a pastoral letter calling for a ban on pipe organs in churches and cathedrals.
The liturgical conference on “Toxic Masculinity in the Song of Solomon and the Songs of the Church,” organised to celebrate International Women’s Day and the 25th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, condemned the pipe organ as “an instrument of toxic masculinity.”
Rachel Weaktree, Bishop of Glucoseter, told the conference how she was inspired to gather her fellow female bishops to discuss misogyny and music after reading feminist musicologist Susan McClary. Weaktree’s keynote address, entitled “Da-da-da-DUM; da-da-da-DUM: Patriarchal Phallic Thrusting in the Opening Notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony,” explored toxic masculinity in Beethoven.
“We’ve always thought of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a joyous outburst of human solidarity. We have a hymn tune from the symphony’s Ode to Joy. But McClary helped me to understand that this symphony tells a more violent story, which is one of rape,” Bishop Rachel said, acknowledging both theories were based on McClary’s book Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality.
Viva Ann Foul, Bishop of Bristle, in her presentation on “Pipe Organs, Pedals and Patriarchal Peremptoriness” explained how her clash with cathedral bells and bell-ringers had opened her eyes to the oppressive potential of certain androgenic musical instruments.
“Pipe organs tend to be loud, aggressive, dominant and overpowering. These are male characteristics, as the latest Gillette advertisement demonstrated. The large and erect pipes, often on naked display, are sexual symbols of virile manhood. Some organs are so large and have so many pedals and knobs that women feel marginalised, because it requires male testosterone to operate the instrument,” Foul said.
“I accept that there are sweeter, gentler and more feminine pipes. But they are pulverised into submission by the coercive masculinity of the Gravissima (64ft), Contra Bombarde (32ft), Contra Trombone (32ft), Ophicleide (16ft) and Contra Tuba (16ft),” Foul pointed out in her power-point presentation.
Foul cited the example of Liverpool Cathedral’s pipe organ, the largest in Britain, where the Tuba Magna although only 8ft on 50” of wind is stentorian in tone and the Trompette Millitaire is again only 8ft but also on 50” of wind is annihilatingly loud. “This is a fair image of how small choir boys grow into big toxic males,” she said, also noting that pipe organs use up fossil fuels and pump out quantifiable elements of hi-decibel sounds that lead to global warming.
Jenny-Josiah Jimplecute, the Church of England’s first transgender bishop, spoke on sexism and racism in the Song of Songs. “King Solomon was a polygamist with 700 wives. He oppressed them by forcing them to share his living quarters in the palace with 300 porcupines,” she told the conference.
“Read 1:6 and feel the rabid racism of this song! What does the oppressed female character say in the King James Version? ‘Look not upon me, because I am black.’ We need to return to Miriam’s tambourine as an instrument of feminist empowerment. Get rid of organists and fill our sanctuaries with women playing tambourines,” Jimplecute shouted, receiving a standing ovation.
The conference climaxed with guest of honour Cambridge economist and anti-Brexiteer Victoria Buttman, performing John Cage’s 4’33” in three movements. “4’33” is 4 minutes and 33 seconds long and is written for any instrument or combination of instruments. The score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece. This is our feminist response to the toxic masculinity of Beethoven’s symphonies and bombastic pipe organs,” Dr Buttman said.
Performing in her protest garment of complete nudity, Buttman sat at the piano and, to mark the beginning of the piece, opened the keyboard lid. Some time later she closed it briefly, to mark the end of the first movement. This process was repeated for the second and third movements.
The conference unanimously voted to ban pipe organs in liturgical worship and said it would propose a motion to be debated at the General Synod in York later in July.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Organists and Organ Grinders (RCOOG), based at Cadence House, 4 Libby Lane, have issued an online petition protesting the ban on pipe organs. “Church organists are part of a gig economy and will be out of work if General Synod votes against the use of pipe organs in liturgical services,” John Forte, President of RCOOG told the media.
“However, if they are forced to transition to more feminine instruments like the flute, harp, mandolin, triangle and tambourine, we will do it if only to end toxic masculinity. The House of Bishops has already given us permission to adapt the baptismal rite for transgender transitions to mark the transitioning of our musicians from organists to harpists, flautists, and so on,” Forte said.
A statement from Lambeth Palace said that Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, was standing shoulder to shoulder with the women bishops and would not permit pipe organs at the Lambeth Conference in 2020. “We also see pipe organs as a symbol of Western colonialism and white supremacy. We apologise for the ‘white man’s music.’ It is time we heard the sound of Indian sitars, African drums, and Aboriginal Didgeridoos accompanying our discourse of Indaba, good disagreement and Yabba-Dabba-Doo.”
(Originally published in A Voice for Men)